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María Elena Vinueza

THE RELIGIOUS SYSTEM of Ocha-Ifá, popularly known as Santería, is unarguably the faith practiced by the largest number of Cuban people. This African-based religion subsumes two liturgical domains of enormous significance: the Regla de Ocha, or precepts regulating the cult of the orichas who are forms of selective divine energy syncretized in Cuba with external attributes of Catholic saints; and the divination system of Ifá (see Juan Mesa Díaz, “The Religious System of Ocha-Ifá,” in this volume).

The complex cluster of festive rituals of the Regla de Ocha integrated a wealth of cultural elements contributed by the ethnic conglomerate generically characterized in Cuba as Lucumí, a metaethnolinguistic term subsuming a large number of Yoruba-affiliated ethnic nations. In West Africa, according to historian I. A. Akinjogbin, the term “Lucumí” surfaces in travelers’ reports of the seventeenth century as the name of the lingua franca spoken in the Aja country, “which is undoubtedly the Yoruba language” (1972: 305, citing Ogilby 1670: 647). Another explanation, consistent with the colonial practice of recording arrivals by toponyms that often referred to ports from which the slaves were shipped, links the term “Lucumí” to the West African captaincy of Ulkumí, a place of departure for the colonies. More significant than the term’s genesis is the fact that it denotes a wide variety of ethnic nations. Recent historiographical studies, including data from certificates of baptism and other archival documents in churches and parishes, have identified more than 130 Yoruba-affiliated groups brought to Cuba mostly from areas of present-day Nigeria.

Festive celebrations of the Regla de Ocha are held for a variety of purposes. Among the most common are the presentation of an iyawó to the “drum” and anniversaries of initiation (cumpleaños de santo, or saint’s birthday). In the absence of formal temples, “drum” ceremonies usually take place in the ilé ocha or home of any initiated member of the religious community. Although these house-temples are the most likely sites, there are instances in which the orichas request that their “drum” be held on the street, at the foot of a ceiba tree, on the seashore or by a river, or in any other “secular” location which is then sacralized by performing the appropriate consecratory rituals.

The organization of festive ceremonies requires the collaboration of all members of the religious community whose standing in the structure depends on the rank they have attained, which in turn determines the range of functions they can perform in the rituals. The iyawós are recently initiated believers who have not yet completed their first year after initiation. Santeros and santeras are initiated persons who have reached their first anniversary of consecration. Babalochas and iyalochas are, respectively, the “fathers and mothers of the saint,” namely santeros and santeras who have attained priesthood by having themselves consecrated their own “godchildren”; they also guide and teach novices, officiate at initiation ceremonies, and perform a number of tasks for their godchildren during the course of their religious life. (In Cuba, the terms santero mayor and santero menor are used to differentiate between those who have consecrated others, or “hacer santo,” and those who have not yet done so.) Higher in the hierarchy is the oriaté, a santero mayor who has attained the rank of leader of consecration ceremonies and also masters the reading of the dilogún divination method. Holding the highest rank in the religious hierarchy is the babalawo who, as Chief Priest of Ifá, carries the maximum level of religious authority. The structure, however, precludes concentration of authority on a single figure and, consequently, all the important decisions are made by councils since no individual, regardless of rank, seniority, or merit, can speak for, or single-handedly make decisions affecting the entire religious community. In the case of festive events, both the preparatory activities and the ceremonies themselves are led by persons holding the highest ranks in the religious hierarchy. More often than not a babalawo presides over “drum” ceremonies and, in those rare instances when a babalawo is not available, the oriaté assumes the leadership role. The olubatá (master drummer) and apkwón (singer), as performers who fulfill crucial roles in the kinetic phases of rituals involving drumming and singing, also hold ranks in the religious structure and can be, for instance, babalawos or oriatés.

Each celebration entails many tasks. Among the most important are the special arrangement of the house, the preparation of food for collective meals, the disposition of the igbodú or sacred space, the ritual sacrifice of animals to be offered, and the preparation of musical instruments anticipated for the oricha-specific toques. (In this context, toque can be defined as a rhythmic locution of patterns and strokes that fulfills a specific communicative function.)

The preparation of the igbodú or “sanctuary” is one of the activities that demands the greatest attention. This is the room (“cuarto de santo”) or particular corner of the house inhabited by orichas dwelling in vessels (soperas) that are placed on upright cabinets called canastilleros. These vessels hold the otá, a stone bearing the spirit and power, or Aché, of each oricha.

On festive days, the igbodú must be especially decorated with mats, embroidered cloths, tree branches, flowers, fruits, homemade sweets, platters with food, candles, and other offerings that believers present to the orichas. This is the space inhabited by the sacred—and therefore restricted to the initiated—where santeros converge to pay their respects to the orichas as befits their initiation and the site where the first oru takes place. This oru, which precedes the festive toque, is a ritual sequence of prayers or invocations intoned to summon all the orichas received by the leader of the ceremony. The first prayer is addressed to Elegguá (Elebwa), the owner of all pathways who is invoked to open and close the ceremonies. In ritual order follow Oggún and Ochosi Ozun, who are, like Elegguá, warring orichas; Oduduwa, “Father of the Yoruba and First Ancestor”; Obatalá; Orúnmila; the remaining orichas received by the ceremony’s leader, including an invocation to his/her tutelary oricha or Olorí, the guardian spirit; and a closing prayer to Elegguá.

Because the sacred batá drums hold the highest position in the ritual hierarchy, when they participate in a ceremony the initial invocations are performed on these tambores de fundamento. Consecrated according to religious tradition, the batá then perform the Oru de Igbodú, a liturgical sequence of oricha-specific toques characterized as an oru seco (dry) (see “Oru de Igbodu,” vol. 2 in Antología de la música afrocubana, under Discography). In these toques entreating the orichas to open the doors of communication, the olubatá or master drummer is called upon to display his full mastery of traditional drum language. (See Victoria Eli Rodríguez, “Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería,” in this volume.)

Following the initial invocations, the central phase of the ceremony is a public celebration involving both singing and drumming that can take place in the living room (Eyá Aranlá) or in the outdoor patio (Ibán Baló). If performance is integral to the Oru de Igbodú leading to the festive toque, drumming assumes the central role in this kinetic phase of the ritual by controlling the interplay of energies between drummer and dancers capable of inducing the “descent” of orichas upon receptive participants. While also accompanying dance, the toque mediates in the transformative process of spirit possession and thereby contributes to fulfilling the purpose of the ritual, which is to materialize the presence of a maximum number of orichas.

In the Oru de Eyá Aranlá (held in the living room) or Oru de Ibán Baló (held in the outdoor patio), the songs and toques addressed to the orichas follow a preestablished order, but their number and length depend on how the event develops. First, the solo singer—the gallo (rooster) or apkwón—summons the santeros to greet the tambores de fundamento and their players. Depending on which orichas are invoked by the songs, the santeros who recognize themselves as “sons” of those orichas will parade to the center of the room or outdoor space, greet the sacred drums and their performers with special reverence, and place money in a small container. This is a jícara or small vessel made of dried güira gourd placed in front of the drum ensemble to collect the “right” or payment that drummers distribute among themselves at the end of the festivity. The santeros then dance briefly for their own oricha-saint (“santo de su cabeza”). The singer’s skill is measured by his capacity to identify the oricha-saint of each of the persons arriving at the event in a manner that compels them to greet the drum and pay the “rights” (“derechos de tambor”).

When the event involves the presentation of an iyawó to the sacred drum, here again it is the function of the singer to regulate the course of the ceremony through a song accompanying the procession of the iyawó from the igbodú to the drum, guided and guarded by his or her sponsoring santero or santera mayor (padrino or madrina) and the yibona, a type of second sponsor. The iyawó greets the drum for the first time and dances for the oricha to whom he/she has been consecrated. At this juncture, the singer and drummers display their experience by progressively increasing the intensity and complexity of the toque until they create an intoxicating atmosphere of singing and dancing that culminates when the spirit of the iyawo’s oricha “mounts” him or her, or when he or she falls into a state of emotional exhaustion.

A similar process ensues when the singer recognizes that one of the dancers is becoming susceptible to spirit possession. The singer’s attention then concentrates on that individual and, through a change in the direction of the singing (“virar el canto”) exhorts the oricha to whom that person has been consecrated to “descend upon the head of his son or horse” (“bajar a la cabeza de su hijo o caballo”). At the same time, the master drum establishes a direct dialogue with the dancer, compelling him or her to respond to the challenge of the toque with the full power of his or her body. The circle of dancers also closes in to make it impossible for the dancer to escape the expressive challenge that leads necessarily to spirit possession, a condition in which the dancer’s personality becomes displaced by the physical and psychological traits of the oricha. This transformation is characterized as “montarse” (to mount). At that point, the toque is interrupted and the presence of the oricha is greeted with a song. The “mounted” person receives immediate assistance and is escorted inside the house. There, he or she is dressed with the colors and vestments of the oricha and as such returns to the hall or patio to greet those present and receive the reverence of his/her “sons” (hijos), addressing with gestures not only santeros but also uninitiated participants whom he/she considers worthy of recognition and protection. The oricha also greets the singer and drummers and, to express satisfaction with the toque, places money on their foreheads and clothes. In the dancing that follows, both singer and drummers become subordinated to the demands of the oricha and must display their skill in matching the rhythmic and choreographic expressivity of the possessed dancer.

The splendor and success of a celebration largely is determined by the number of orichas who can “descend” (bajar) to share in the faith with believers and sanction the accuracy and effectiveness of the ritual. The honored oricha then offers individual consultations, speaking in a ritual language that preserves structures from ancient Yoruba as well as terms and phrases of Spanish derivation. Because santeros mayores (babalochas and iyalochas) master ritual language, they serve as “translators” who communicate the message of the oricha to the rest of those present.

The ritual language of the songs has preserved numerous linguistic structures of Yoruba origin. Song texts praise the orichas and sacred ancestors, extolling their virtues and supernatural powers while also recalling the legends and paths that characterize them. The melodic contours of the songs are subordinated to the prosody of the text, which is delivered in phrases that maintain an antecedent–consequent syntactical relationship. These melodic locutions never exceed the range of an octave and are centered on an axial or referential tone that articulates ascending and descending motion resolving on a pitch in the low register. Within this stylistic framework, the texture of the singing is distributed between the soloist who introduces new melodic and textual elements, and the invariable and repetitive response of the chorus.

Among the instruments that can participate in these celebrations, the batá drum ensemble is the most prestigious. These are three hourglass-shaped doubleheaded membranophones whose skins are stretched by longitudinal straps, with transverse tension bands. Enriching the timbric band defined by the drums is an added atcheré (acheré), a type of maraca associated with cults of Yoruba and Ewe ancestry which is made from the gourd of the güira, totuma, or calabaza fruit struck by seeds placed inside the vessel.

regla ocha

Fig. 1: Fiesta de bembé organized by the Cabildo Niló Nillé. Photo by Carlos Manuel Fernández (Matanzas, 1981), courtesy of the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), Olavo Alén Rodríguez, Director.

Other instrumental groups of Yoruba ancestry that can be used in these festive events include the güiro or abwe ensemble comprising three güiros, one agógo (a liturgical bell made of iron), and one to three tumbadoras; and bembé ensembles consisting of a struck iron idiophone and three or four membranophones whose typology ranges from the cylindrical double-headed drums of leather stretched by straps with transverse tension bands characteristic of the iyesá model, to the modern tumbadoras that have come to substitute for the now-deteriorated bembé drums (Fig. 1). The sacred dundun drums, which are tambores de fundamento, also were employed in these types of ceremonies; at the present time, however, only one set belonging to the Cabildo La Divina Caridad has been preserved in the city of Cienfuegos. (See Victoria Eli Rodríguez, “Güiros and Batá Drums: Two Instrumental Groups of Cuban Santería,” in this volume.)

The toques performed on this variety of drum types or on güiros are integrated with the singing through the interrelations established by tradition between their respective timbric bands, whose roles and expressive behavior conform with African models. Thus, in the timbric band or franja tímbrica defined by the drums, the high and middle registers provide the stable metric and rhythmic foundation, while the low register carries the rhythmic elaborations stemming from its rhetorical and improvisational role. (See Argeliers León, “Music in the Life of Africans and Their Descendants in the New World,” in this volume.) Moreover, the drummers’ high ranking in social and religious circles is expressed not only during the course of ceremonial events, but also through the norms of behavior to which they are bound. Equally binding are the rules limiting the handling and performance of sacred drums to those who have been consecrated for the task.

Festive events of the Regla de Ocha conclude with a ceremonial phase of release from the divine forms of energy summoned that restores the normal pace of daily life. An appropriate toque and song mark the point at which a designated person must lift a vessel filled with clear water that had been placed in the living room, displays it around the room, and, turning to the rhythm of the toque, exits through the front door to toss the water outside the house. This person then returns to the living room and places the vessel upside down, marking with this gesture the conclusion of the toque. Elegguá is invoked once more to close the paths through which time and again music and dance guide the journeys of the sons of Ocha.



(See also References in “The Religious System of Ocha-Ifá” by Juan Mesa Díaz)

Akinjogbin, I. A. 1972. “The expansion of Oyo and the rise of Dahomey, 1600–1800” in History of West Africa: Volume One, ed. by J. F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder. New York: Columbia University Press, 305–43.

León, Argeliers 1984. Del canto y el tiempo, 2nd edition. La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas.

López Valdés, Rafael L. 1985. Componentes africanos en el etnos cubano. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.

Vinueza, María Elena, and Carmen María Sáenz Coopat 1991. “El aporte africano en la formación de la cultura musical cubana.” La Habana: unpublished manuscript.


“Oru de Igbodu,” Antología de la música afrocubana, vol. 2. Production and liner notes by María Teresa Linares. La Habana, EGREM LD-3995 (1981).

“Musica lyesá,” Antología de la música afrocubana, vol. 3. Production by María Teresa Linares, liner notes by Argeliers León. La Habana, EGREM LD-3747 (1981).

“Fiesta de bembé,” Antología de la música afrocubana, vol. 6. Production by María Teresa Linares, liner notes by Carmen María Sáenz Coopat. La Habana, EGREM LD-3997 (1981).

“Toque de güiros,” Antología de la música afrocubana, vol. 8. Production and liner notes by Ana Victoria Casanova Oliva. La Habana, EGREM LD-4483 (1988).